SNOW IN THE GORGE
The Skook Saga Continues
When I got her on the pay phone outside the Pick ‘N Shovel, and after I filled her in on our son’s new buddy Ralph, my wife was sad to hear about the Petoskey mine being shut down. “I’ll call his wife tomorrow to commiserate. Poor Bob’s going to be miserable.”
“He liked your pie,” I remembered to tell her. “Said you were a chip off the old block, the old block being your mother.”
“They’re really good people,” she said. “I don’t suppose there’s any chance your story might affect that decision on the mine.”
I sighed. She was remembering other places, other unreasonable or unjust things I had stopped or reversed as an investigative reporter.
“I doubt it,” I said. “It’s just a Sunday feature story. This development gives it an up-to-date hook, but I’m afraid that’s all. Remember, I’m just free-lancing these days…”
“Are you coming home tomorrow night?”
“That’s still the plan, unless the skooks chase me out of the Gorge.”
“Uh-oh, who have you been talking to? I’m surprised they mentioned that to an outsider, even one related by marriage.”
“So you know all about Bigfoot,” I said.
“You forget, dear,” she said sweetly, “I sleep with Bigfoot. When he’s not off chasing Veteran’s Administration nurses anyway.” She never let me forget my old boss’s wisecrack. But adding that snarky comment about nurses meant I probably shouldn’t mention that Mildred had eyes like Elizabeth Taylor’s.
“You think there really are wild men up here in these mountains?” I said instead. “That’s what old Mr. Tuchi calls them, wild men.”
“You really have been doing your homework,” she said. “How is Mr. Tuchi?”
“Spry, and sharp as a tack. When he got into remembering the old days you could almost see the coke ovens aglow on a winter evening.”
“All gone to dust now,” she said.
“Well, alders and moss and skunk cabbage, to be perfectly accurate,” I said. “But gone, just the same.”
“Bob said after the Second World War, those old-timers used to tell the younger miners to just hang on for a few more years,” she said. “They were just sure the mines would come back, now the government knew the quality of the coal from those wartime operations…”
“Bob told me tonight he has coal in his blood,” I said. “I think they all do. Except maybe Joe Consonants. Joe told me he smells like wind and snass, which he assures me means rain in Chinook, so that’s why Harry and Paka didn’t smell him coming down to the cabin. He moves like a ghost, big Joe. A bare-footed ghost.”
“It’s not quite cold enough yet for his shoes,” she said matter-of-factly. “When it’s real winter time he’ll dig out those old clod hoppers of his. So Joe came to see you?”
“And of course you know all about him, right? The legend that walks like a man — barefoot?”
She laughed. “Joe’s perfectly harmless. You sound like he spooked you.”
“A ghost that materializes out of nowhere, to comment on my target shooting? Yeah, he spooked me.”
She was still laughing. “I’m glad you didn’t shoot him. Did anybody tell you they had postcards made with his photograph to sell up there to the tourists?”
“That detail has escaped my attention.”
“Joe told my mom he was very proud of that. When Mom drove that rural mail route from Burnett to the park boundary, she’d give him a ride in the bad weather. She was one of the few he’d take a ride from. He walks all the way up and down that Gorge road, and all over the hills besides. Says it keeps him young. But he liked talking to Mom.”
“Everybody liked talking to your mom,” I said…
We talked about some of her mother’s adventures until Mildred and Ralph came out, my son toddling happily between them with a hand stretched up to each. The ice-cream social was over.
“Wants to talk to his momma,” the old vet said, and told the “little dude” he’d see him later…
“Bye Raff, bye!” I held him up to the phone. “Mo! Mo!” he hadn’t quite got the second M for Mom yet. “Raff do horsey! Blay cheggers, Mo!”
We were all laughing by the time he finished his recital. I snuggled him against my shoulder to say goodnight. Her knowledge about big Joe, coming on top of Petoskey’s strange tale of an Army colonel obsessed with bagging a yeti, had stilled my qualms about going back to the cabin. Joe was, in fact, just the local character. Every neighborhood in America has one, but — being the Gorge — Joe had to really be weird to be noticed. I didn’t say that. My wife was very protective of the sensibilities up here.
“Have you heard a weather report?” she asked when we got ready to say good night.
“I don’t even have a radio up here, remember?”
“Well keep your eye out. There’s a big storm rolling in from north. That front that just came through was holding it off. Temperatures are supposed to really drop tonight.”
“Joe might have to get out his clodhoppers.”
She laughed. “You just be careful up there. Snow predicted for the higher elevations. Those roads can be really bad when it snows.”
“If your mom could make it in that old mail truck, the Ford will be fine.”
“Knock on wood!” She said.
“You spent too much time around my grandmother and her Southern superstitions,” I said.
“Do it anyway, Smarty. I don’t want those to be your famous last words.”
So I pulled out my pipe and tapped on the bowl against the phone so she could hear it. Couples do silly things like that.
I got the dogs inside the cabin and the boy settled and the fire stoked up, then went back outside to feel the weather. The temperature definitely was dropping. There was that suspended sense of a storm pending. So I backed the truck around to aim straight at the muddy road, and pulled my bag of tire chains and bottle jack close to the tailgate between the kennels. Those chains had carried us through serious snows during Pennsylvania winters, and I didn’t think the Gorge could offer anything worse.
At least in terms of a snowstorm, I was right.
The boy had had a big day and lots of fresh air, and I was betting he’d sleep right through even though it wasn’t quite nine p.m. It felt later. I was yawning myself. I bundled him up in the down vest and sleeping bag and came back out to put on a fresh pot of coffee and transcribe a few notes about the closing of the last coal mine. The dogs were asleep in front of the fire.
I didn’t make it a half hour on the typewriter. I just left a page halfway completed and moved to the couch to gaze at the coal flames and think about everything I’d seen and heard today. I was asleep before I knew it. The dogs woke me, cold wet noses shoved insistently into my palms. The wind had picked up, and there was an insistent whispering rattle on the tin roof. The dogs went to the door and waited. When I opened the door and beamed my big lantern across the meadow, it was snowing. Small hard kernels of snow slanted through the beam, first this way and then that way. The truck already had a thin coating.
I stood in the doorway out of the wind and watched the dogs track up the dusting of snow around the truck. Normally first snow got them all frisky and prancing, but this time they acted differently. Both of them had their noses down, crisscrossing like they were hunting. I was getting chilled without a coat, waiting for them to settle and do their business. They kept putting their noses up into the shifting wind and then back on the ground. Several times they sneezed violently, like something the wind told them was not of their liking.
“Hurry it up, guys,” I said impatiently.
They looked at me, and went right back to their sniffing.
“If you didn’t need to go, why did you wake me up? Do your business!”
Harry lifted his leg on a low patch of snow-sprinkled brush. Then he trotted stiff-legged to the edge of the cabin and urinated again on the corner. Paka watched him and finally squatted. Before she was finished, Harry had moved to the edge of the porch steps and doled out another tea-cup of yellow urine. Just for a moment, I thought his urine smelled awfully strong. Then I realized it was something else, a threading of stink on the wind, gone almost as I realized it.
Paka faced the dark and growled.
It felt like my neck hairs stood up. I had never heard her growl like that. Harry turned to look that way, and bowed his neck.
“Paka, come!” I said loudly. She glanced back, but that was all. I repeated it, even louder. “Get in here, dammit!” Her ears drooped and she came, glancing over her shoulder. Her tail was tucked tight between her legs. I motioned her inside and she went. Harry looked at me.
“Inside,” I said. “Now!”
He went. I stayed at the door another long moment, pushing the lantern beam here and there. The snowfall was thickening and the beam bounced, not carrying deep into the woods like before. I closed the door and went to warm myself at the fire. Harry was slurping up water from his bowl, as if trying to replace all the liquid he’d spread around. He’d been marking his turf, I realized. Paka was backed up to the fire, tail still tucked, muzzle still wrinkled as if she was getting ready to growl again. She looked so half-wild and strange that I almost felt afraid of her.
“Paka,” I said. “Down and stay!”
She didn’t want to, but her muzzle smoothed out.
“Don’t make me repeat myself, young lady,” I said sternly.
She lay down, her eyes walled toward the door. Harry flopped down beside her, shoulder to shoulder, but did not relax. His gaze burned a hole in the door.
“I don’t want you tangling with coyotes up here,” I said to them. “Settle down now!”
I had both rifles back in the cabin. Now I loaded both of them. Either one was too much for a coyote, but it’s what I had. Since I had re-zeroed the big Magnum for the heavier loads, that’s what I charged it with. They would punch through a coyote without any expansion at all, but I wasn’t sure what my scope tinkering would cause in terms of point-of-impact for my deer loads. It never occurred to me — then — to pivot the scope on its Weaver swing-away mount to use the iron sights.
I leaned the rifles on the couch and got another cup of coffee. The dogs’ antics had driven sleep right out of my head. I wondered if Mildred’s chickens were in for a raid tonight. I hoped her chicken coop was stout as it looked. The wind settled into a steady moaning around the corners of the cabin and I charged the fire with fresh coal. Gradually the heat began to permeate the whole room. The chuckling of the coal in the grate overpowered the soft hiss of snow on the roof. It was almost midnight.
I snapped awake to a loud crash on the tin roof. The dogs went crazy, howling like wolves, teeth bared.
“God damn it, hush!” I yelled. “It’s just a branch that snapped off.”
Crash. I flinched, and the dogs ignored me, raving like demented things. Was a whole damn tree coming down on us? I jumped up, stood over the dogs and yelled right in their faces. This time they shut up.
Something heavy was rolling down the slant of the tin above our heads. Its uneven progress sounded like an out-of-round bowling ball.
Tree limbs didn’t make sounds like that. It reached the edge of the roof and I heard a heavy thud outside as whatever it was hit the ground. Before I could move, another missile landed on the roof with the same loud bang. Then a couple more, not quite as loud. The dogs started in again. This time I didn’t try to hush them. I was too busy throwing on my Filson wool mackinaw and grabbing the Remington. I didn’t have time to be afraid. I went straight to killing fury.
We were under siege.